Bonneville Dam steelhead count surges

VANCOUVER, Wash. – When Joe Hymer first saw the figure, he thought it must have been a typo.

The veteran fishery biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife was reviewing the daily count of steelhead passing Bonneville Dam. Tuesday’s figure didn’t seem right: 18,671.

Because that was a full 10,000 more than the day before, Hymer figured someone must have inadvertently punched in an extra digit on the calculator. He had good reason to believe so. In the 71 years since fish counting began at Bonneville, the previous record for the daily steelhead count amounted to 14,432.

Then came Wednesday’s count: 28,314.

On Thursday, the number spiked to 34,054.

The incredible steelhead counts weren’t typos. At the dam, fish counters recorded as many as 1,700 silvery flashes zipping past in a single hour on Thursday, a rate that equates to a new fish every couple of seconds.

Biologists attribute this week’s bulging daily counts at Bonneville largely to the searing heat wave two weeks ago. Several days of triple-digit heat warmed the river to as high as 75 degrees at Bonneville, well above the comfort level for cold-water fish.

Stuart Ellis, biologist for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said it’s too early to know whether this year’s run will come anywhere near the gargantuan run of 630,000 steelhead in 2001 – the year when the previous daily record of 14,432 was recorded at Bonneville.

But he’s not ruling out the possibility.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “The counts will continue through September and into October, so anything’s possible at this stage. We could be looking at a very large steelhead run.”

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